Courtesy of Daily News, 14 November 2014, http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=features/galle-forts-high-flyers
They start out like oversized spindly bats with splayed arms and fingers like hooking pegs for ends meant for latching on, bouncing their absorbed cosmic and soaked karmic energy sonar waves right off of the face of the orange sun, fixed like dark matter for a fleeting moment lodged in the glistening york, only to then nosedive like a kamikaze bomber just been hit, before careening head-on towards a seductive pool of blue water surrounded by crashing white froth and dangerously jutting rock faces.
Devil may care: Not quite possessed with the tragic ideals of Icarus, instead freestyle divers are blessed more with brazen braggadocio, full of a devil may care attitude, which allows them the confidence to pull off this death defying feat several times on a daily basis. To paraphrase the poetess Sylvia Plath, if dying is an art, then these daredevils do it exceptionally well and what’s more, these self-made entrepreneurs have made it a profession to aspire to, resulting in severe injuries for many foolhardy to attempt the stunt themselves.
Galle Fort jumping off the ancient citadel walls started in the early 90s and it is the world’s equivalent to the bungee jump only a lot more dangerous, because the guys don’t even use an elasticised rope to pull you back from the near death experience, or a totally clear landing point. This hair rising jump off the walls is based on the Fort ramparts at the top of the wall known as Flag Rock between Point Utrecht Bastion and Triton Bastion. For those that like to dice with mortality and experience Fort life on the edge nothing beats watching these lads spring into action. Chamara, Lasantha, Chinthaka, Rawan, and Ranga each one has their own technique when it comes to diving over the wall whether it’s a long run off akin to batman taking his car out of the bat cave or a short position your hand correctly and jump.
Watching it day after day it is amazing that even on a windy or stormy afternoon each diver always miraculously misses the deadly rocks below and they are diving into a only a few feet of water, three to four feet only in places. A few foreigners have tried and not surprisingly in most cases have ended up very badly hurt and this includes a Japanese guy that broke both his legs and an Italian tourist who landed head first on the rocks and smashed his face and arms to pieces. So the lads would not under any circumstances recommend in a moment of bravado you try out. For the Jump just merely pay the local lads something to demonstrate how it’s done and they will happily show you a whole range of dives, something even the army stationed only a few minutes further along the walls would envy the ability to do.
Free style diving: Chamara Sampath one of the jumpers has been free style diving off the Fort walls for nearly a decade and he says with a huge smile on his face “I love to jump every day of the week and about five to ten times a day. For one jump I was once paid an incredible 10,000 rupees and yet the greatest pleasure I get is from showing the small school children how to do it. Seeing the kids smiling and clapping their hands in joy is payment enough for me.” Chamara has been offered well-paid jobs in the army to train Sri Lankan soldiers in the art of free style diving and has had numerous opportunities in TV commercials, and even a recent cooking show with the owner of Flying Fish Peter Kurivita who highlighted them in his Sri Lankan food show as part of his amazing series My Sri Lanka. Peter wisely did not have a go at the jump!
Chamara says he could have joined the army or got a job in Colombo like many of his friends but did not want to be away from his family. Chamara says, “If I could have my life over again I would have only two wishes and that is to teach this in every school round the country and lobby for this to be national sport like cricket.” He is still amazed by how many people say anyone can do it, but explains, “It’s not just the height that is dangerous, but the ever changing weather conditions and level of the sea water from three to five feet, which we have to assess each and every time you do a dive.”
Boxing Day: Each lad has an amusing story to tell however, when it comes to the tsunami there is a deep sadness in their eyes as they recall Boxing Day morning on December 26, 2004. Chamara says “it was busy on the fort ramparts with lots of tourists as we were in a period of ceasefire, like any other peak tourism season day we were busy talking to people about what we do. A local group pulled up in a van and asked Chamara to jump and after negotiating a price Chamara says “I started to run as the water rose up to meet me at the top of the wall. It was so high that even a small child could have done the jump the dive that morning. It meant for the first time ever I didn’t need to climb back up the rock face, and within seconds of being back on my jumping spot I was even more alarmed to see the seawater recede and vanish. It was just like the plug had been pulled out of the Indian Ocean. I could see everything on the sea bed and was amazed that places like elephant rock had rocks underneath it in the form of legs just like the animal its named after and everywhere I could see beautiful multi- coloured corals, fish gasping for breath and bits of old boats. I knew then something was terribly wrong as I had never seen sea water vanish before and ran as fast I could straight home to check on my mum and sisters.”
Despite some very extreme and daunting moments over the years the jumpers as they liked to be called say it is a great way to stay fit and earn a decent living, which in no easy thing coming from a village background. So if you want to capture the guys in action take a good camera, listen to their advice on best places to see these jumpers perform James Bond style stunts so you can capture a moment you will remember for the rest of your lives. The best point to take pictures is not necessarily on Flag Rock itself, where a green hand painted sign with an arrow pointing to the edge says ‘Jump’ and we suggest you don’t under any circumstances. The best photographic view is back down the steps and a little way along the ramparts slightly to the right of the rock to get both the jumpers and the bastian in shot.
The local lads will happily wait for you to get in position and then kick off their flip flops unless they are already barefoot and nicely ask the crowd to clear a path for them to run from one end of Flag Rock to the other. The distance and speed is vital to give themselves enough levitation to dive clear of both the wall and rocks. Most of these jumpers as they like to be known collectively have been doing this since they were teenagers and even with daily practice have only seen one foreigner a Californian guy clear the rocks safely. Rawan the first guy to ever do the jump says “even with years of experience of doing the same jump over and over again the is still an element of risk with freak winds pushing you back against the rock, and that’s what makes it such an adrenaline junkie sport.”
The best time to go: Late afternoon is the best time for both light and to get a clear shot of the jumpers entering the water either individually or in a group. You will always find one or several of the lads hanging out at Flag Rock where there are little food stalls including mango smothered in chilli and short eats in the evening. The jumpers are usually around between 9 o’clock and 6pm.